Saturday, September 3, 2011

O Pioneers!

Title: O Pioneers!
Author:  Willa Cather
List:  #83 on Radcliffe’s Top 100 20th Century Novels
Worth reading?  Yes.

I remember reading My Ántonia by Willa Cather years ago, for a high school English class.  I can’t really remember the book or what I thought about it, but for some reason I always think of it with distaste.  Consequently, I wasn’t particularly looking forward to reading O Pioneers!, but because it was short and available online, I decided to give it a try.  And now I really need to reread My Ántonia because I think that for years I may have been dismissing a gem.

O Pioneers! is an enchanting account of a Swedish immigrant pioneer family struggling to make a living on the Nebraska plains.  Recognizing good sense and business talent in his oldest child, a daughter named Alexandra, a father instructs his sons to follow Alexandra’s counsel in running the land and, above all, to keep the land.  Alexandra is an intelligent, independent woman whose risk-taking and innovation causes the family to prosper.  However, her willingness to break with convention is not favored in the rigid Swedish immigrant community, and her two oldest brothers grow resentful of her independence and her desire to give their younger brother opportunities, like college, that the three older children never had.

Willa Cather manages to bring the prairie alive, and, briefly, conveys their beauty and a love of the land.  Even though the novel is only around 130 pages (depending on the version), it is long enough to make a reader sympathize with the struggles of the characters and sense their lost loves and dreams before they fully realize the losses themselves.  Some themes could be explored in more detail, but the novel is a joy to read and its brevity may be, in part, what makes it so sweet.

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